Reconciling Darwin's Origin and Expression

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Chapter 8 endnote 11, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Population thinking is based on variation, whereas essentialism is based on sameness. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. Origin is therefore a profoundly anti-essentialist book. So it is baffling that where emotion is concerned, Darwin reversed his greatest achievement by writing Expression. [...] What was the reason for Darwin’s hypocrisy?

Why are Darwin’s views about emotions so inconsistent with his greatest conceptual innovations about evolution? Perhaps he made a simple mistake, something that even the greatest of scientists can do. For some great examples, see Mario Livio’s book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.

Alternatively, maybe Darwin had a plan. Darwin scholars have been largely silent on his reasons for writing Expression, but perhaps he was using emotions as a rhetorical device to defend against the backlash of criticism evoked by his ideas that humans shared a common ancestor with other animals. When Darwin applied the idea of common descent to barnacles and finches in Origin, the idea was widely accepted by his peers.[1] When he applied his innovations from Origin to humans, including common descent, in The Descent of Man, which Darwin published in 1871, the uproar was much louder and clearer. I am not a historical expert on Darwin’s writings, but when I read his books and compare them, to me it seems as if Darwin wrote Expression to justify the ideas he put forth in Descent. What better way to justify common descent for humans than to show that we share characteristics that are useless for us (vestiges) but useful for other species. If these expressions are useless for us, he might have reasoned, why else would we have them?

Alan Fridlund, a psychologist and Darwin expert and who has studied facial movements extensively, hypothesizes that Darwin wrote Expression as an attack on the creationist ideas of Sir Charles Bell, an anatomist of the time who believed that facial muscles and their expressive capabilities were divinely given by God.[2][3][4] Fridlund also describes how Darwin crafted Expression as the final chapter in Descent, but then decided to publish it a separately.

Regardless of why Darwin wrote Expression, the implications were unintended and unfortunate: using the idea of common descent in the service of essentialism. In attempting to use emotions to defend his ideas in Descent, Darwin basically wrote that emotions have an innate potential from the long distant past to develop along predestined pathways that are largely immutable.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Mayr, Ernst. 2004. What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Browne, Janet. 1985. "Darwin and the expression of the emotions." In The Darwinian Heritage, edited by David Kohn, 307-326. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: Times Warner
  4. For a discussion, see Fridlund, Alan J. 1992. "Darwin's Anti-Darwinism and 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.'" In International Review of Emotion, Volume 2, edited by K. T. Strongman, 117-137. New York: Wiley.